Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick

It's New Year's Eve and everyone in Charlie's small town in New Hampshire is watching the northern lights.  After a particularly bright flare, all the power suddenly goes out - even batteries don't function anymore.  With the town cut off from the rest of the world and no power available, problems quickly start to arise.  Among the first is just keeping warm in the middle of winter but people also have to think about eating and Charlie's mom needs her diabetes medication to stay healthy.  Basic survival is further complicated by the threats coming from local bigot and survivalist Webster Bragg and his sons who are trying to declare martial law with only the part time police officer standing up to them. When Charlie's mom only has a few days of medicine left, he decides to ski the 50 miles south to the city to get her resupplied from the hospital there.

I spent the first several chapters trying to remember the name of the TV show that was on a few years ago where all the power went out and people had to survive so it was distracting to think about which story came first and who was being copied.  (The TV show came first.) Once I dealt with that distraction, I just wasn't caught up by this story at all.  It should've been an exciting, thoughtful examination of our dependency on power and how humans react to crises.  Instead, the excitement never came.  There were lots of events that kept the story moving, but they were presented in such a matter of fact, non-exciting way that I was never very invested.  Even the bad Bragg family wasn't fleshed out much other than that they were racists and survivalists.  A few in the town sided with them but the majority didn't.  Yet they also didn't do anything to help out the police officer who was willing to take a bullet for them.  And then the ending was SO convenient that the aftermath of the old west-style showdown was never followed up on.  Bland throughout.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

 Zelie can remember a time when her people had magic, a time before the Raid where magic was taken away and all the maji, including Zelie's mother, were murdered by order of the king.   Now the powerless diviners are oppressed by King Saran and his guards who demand higher payments and take liberties with the girls while looking down on them.  In an effort to make enough money to pay their latest debt, Zelie and her brother Tzain go to town to sell a rare fish.  While there, a fugitive on the run from the palace guards begs for assistance and Zelie helps her escape from the city walls.  Only later do the brother and sister realize they have helped the princess who has stolen a sacred scroll that helps ignite long lost powers in the diviners.  With some of her magic awakened, Zelie learns that she is chosen to take three artifacts to a sacred place on the solstice to reconnect with the goddess and return magic to everyone.  But the king and his son will do anything to make sure that doesn't happen, even while the prince discovers he has powers of his own.

I am not entirely settled on a rating for this book.  Most parts of it are a solid 4.5 stars and other parts are just a three so I guess you could say that it was up and down for me - but mostly up.  I really liked all three main characters and their growth (and their regression) throughout the book.  Zelie is strong at parts but not so cocky that she has no insecurities as well. The pain she feels from previous traumas is presented so clearly by Adeyemi that you can feel it as a reader without crossing the line into being showy or just a passage in the book that is meant to be emotional but doesn't actually evoke feelings.  Amari's journey from being the victim in palace sparring matches to really feeling herself as lionaire is beautiful and so wonderful for me as a woman reading it.  And what's the story with her and Binta?  I feel like there was something there but even if there wasn't, I loved that Amari's biggest source of support came from a woman.  Meanwhile, Inan is such a huge sexy, disturbed mess that I both couldn't wait to see what he did and cringed every time his chapter arrived.  He didn't really surprise me when all was said and done, but he made me sad all the same.

One thing that will make me love a story is ambiguity in good and evil, hero and villain, and course of action.  This book had ambiguity not just in the characters, but also throughout the plot.  You're cheering for magic to come back and yet there are scenes that left me totally understanding the king's point of view about destroying it.  NOT the way he also massacred his people, but there's real danger in the magical abilities and I'm old enough to know that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" so I was worried about what was actually the right course of action here.  I couldn't just skim the story, I had to put some real thought into it.

Finally, the world of Orisha is fully developed with enough world-building to make it a different place from here (except in terms of the politics of the place which has some definite similarities to real life, in particular to violence against the minorities in the land) but not so extreme that I couldn't grasp the rules of the world and get involved in the story.  There is a map on the endpapers but I could visualize where the group was traveling just from the descriptions in the text and I could completely see the secret maji village and the temples and the broken bridge and the coliseum... 

The only thing I can think of while reflecting on the book is that if it had lost about 100 pages - and I don't have any particular part in mind that I feel was unnecessary, I'm just talking about the length in general - it would've been about perfect.  But that's a kind of nitpicky point, mainly thinking about the ability to attract a few more readers to something a little shorter.  My epic readers, however, will LOVE  having something new and I will begin selling it on Monday.  And then I will be buying at least one more copy because it will be in hot demand.

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

Camellia is excited that she is finally part of the group being sent to the palace to take over Belle duties.   In Orleans, everyone other than a Belle is born with grey skin and red eyes.  The Belles have the special abilities and talents to alter a person's appearance in any way to make him or her beautiful.  During the upcoming ceremony, one of the Belles will be chosen as the Favorite.  Camellia is so sure she will be the Favorite that it is a huge shock when her closest friend is chosen instead. Camellia is sent to a nearby teahouse where she learns that the life of a Belle is not as glamorous as she had imagined and that there are some secrets being kept from her.  She is further surprised when she receives an invitation to come back to the palace and finds out she is replacing Amber as the Favorite.  No one can give her an explanation of what happened to her friend but the more time she spends with the princess, the more she begins to suspect that something nefarious has taken place.  And when the queen makes a proposal to her, Camellia finds herself stuck in a dangerous position.

I have really been dragging my feet on getting this review written mostly because I had such high expectations for it but ended up being quite disappointed.  I'll start with the few things I liked.
  • The setting is lush and so easily visualized thanks to the descriptive language.
  • The premise is unique
  • The references to several fairy/folk tales made me feel like I was really clever when I connected the dots and figured out the subtext.
  • I found myself imagining what it would be like to be able to alter your appearance so radically fairly easily (although painfully, apparently).
  • The deeper subtexts of the desire for beauty at all costs AND the enslavement of people and their differing stations depending on how useful they are to the people in charge.
Now on to the issues I have with The Belles.
  • Yes, the language is descriptive but it was overly so for me and began to feel like padding.  I found it over the top and then, annoying.
  • I could not get invested in any of the characters.  Camellia was not a great friend to Amber and she was not all the swift when it came to figuring out what was happening in the palace nor in making a decision about her course of action.  I wanted a stronger protagonist, someone I could root for.  Whatever sort of feeling I was having for her was then permanently squashed when she and Amber used their Belle powers in a competition with disastrous results.  I think I was supposed to be mad at the person who set up this situation, but Camellia knew the score by then and still played along.  But then was shocked by the results.
  • The villain was too much for me for too long.  Her sadism was clearly illustrated  and then it was shown again with another horrible scene.  And then another.  I get it already.  It reminded me of Ramses Bolton on Game of Thrones and Ramses was the character that almost made me stop watching because I didn't need to see more horrors to understand that he's a bad dude.  
  • The plot "twists" were not so twisty for me, especially the revelation at the end about the elder princess.  That just made me angry that no one had ever thought to check on that before because, come on!!
So, overall, a book I couldn't wait to get but that turned out to be a disappointment for me.  That's always a sad turn of events.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

Jensen has big plans for his future.  He wants to be an astronaut and has already begun researching sunspots, something that makes everyone around him roll their eyes.  In his daydreams Jensen is the hero of every situation and he is happily unaware that his real life is not as great.  His "friends" call him names and say rude things to him.  But they're just joking, right?  It's not until Jensen gets involved with the newspaper crew who wants to interview him for a project on bullying that he even realizes he is a victim of some of that behavior.  

This book grew on my slowly as Chmakova  pulled me into a light story about a daydreaming boy and then sneakily turned it into a strong message book about bullying.  Jensen is a winning character, kinda clueless about life as many new middle schoolers are, with a perception of himself that does not match his reality (like A LOT of people).  His realization that he is being bullied is great, particularly because the questionnaire that helps him see this deals with the considerably less obvious forms of bullying, not just physical bullying.  As he looks around with new eyes, he also becomes more aware of how others are being excluded and takes it upon himself to do what he can to make a difference.  The "brick by brick" analogy is so powerful and hopeful and completely won me over.  I'm sure that's partly because I, myself, feel that some problems we are facing are just too big and I have no impact on changing them.  It's a good affirmation to remind readers that all our actions together can make a difference a little at a time.  And it's also one of the few books around that offers some solutions to bullying, not just calling out the behavior.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson

On the day Elena finally manages to get up the courage to talk to the girl she has had a crush on, that girl is shot right in front of her.  Elena has always heard voices from inanimate objects so when the Starbucks logo tells her to heal Freddie's gunshot wound, Elena does.  Freddie heals as if she had never been shot and then her killer disappears in a flash of light.  Very few people believe Elena but this is not her first miracle.  In fact, she is already somewhat famous because she is the product of a virgin birth.  It turns out there is a scientific explanation for this, but it is still a miracle.  After the healing Elena hears from several other objects all of which tell her she is the key to saving humans from some unnamed problem and that she is to heal as many people as possible.  The issue is that every time she heals one person, lots of others are "raptured" away, leaving behind devastated friends and families.  She has also attracted the attention of the local police and some secretive government agents.  With the help of her best friend, her former boyfriend, and Freddie, Elena is struggling to figure out what she should do.

I really loved the beginning of this book with the healing and promise of some huge religious or philosophical revelation.  I am gaga about how Elena has a crush on a girl and has an ex-boyfriend and yet there is not a passage talking about her sexuality (until much later in the book in a flashback), she just likes who she likes.  In addition, her friend Fadil is great and I was really enjoying their relationship, his devotion to his religion, and his unconditional support of Elena.  So things were going great!  

And then, things just kinda petered out.  Elena asked for answers from the voices but they did not offer her any explanations.  She discussed her options and problems with various people but didn't form any concrete plan of action and I got tired of watching her just react to the latest thing.  I was particularly unhappy with the quick fade of Fadil from the story as Elena became more involved with Freddie.  The book was just long without much action for a huge chunk of time which I feel is an issue for so many authors - great idea for a premise and then seeming to go not much of anywhere. We are left with unanswered questions about the government agents and really, what, exactly, is happening that necessitated the healing and rapturing in the first place?  Elena finds some solution but I don't feel like there was enough groundwork laid to help us (or me, anyway) understand why people would take the option that was offered.  It feels like there was meant to be a deep message about human weariness or faith but it didn't end up being made clear.

Finally - and this is smallish in terms of the overall story, but it mattered to me - my praise of how a bisexual character was so naturally included in the story was tempered by a later passages/events.  While discussing some classmates the two girls identify one boy Freddie used to like who is now transitioning.  A discussion with another character at another time leads to the revelation that he is questioning and might be asexual.  There are other minor LGBTQ "characters" - I use quotes because we don't actually know most of these people, they are just mentioned in passing.  I'm all for representation but not in a laundry list.  Then it just stands out in a "some of my best friends are not straight" way.  Definitely pulled me out of the story as it was not naturally integrated the way Elena's sexuality was.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Other Boy by M.G. Hennessey

Shane and his best friend Josh love baseball and their team has a chance to win a tournament this year.  Unfortunately for his team, Shane has to go visit his dad on the same weekend of an important game so he won't be able to help his team win.  Although he doesn't want to let his team down, Shane is excited about his visit back to his former town because he will be seeing his doctor and might be able to begin having testosterone shots to help with his transition.  No one in Shane's new school knows that he was born biologically female but he is still nervous about someone finding out.  What's more, other boys his age are starting to grow hair and are becoming more muscular and Shane doesn't want to be left behind his peers.  But his dreams of beginning the shots are dashed when his dad, who isn't entirely comfortable with this decision, doesn't give his permission.  Back at home, Shane lets slip the name of his former school and the bully who has been harassing him finds a picture of Shane as a girl.  Now he is struggling with his identity again as well as wondering how his friends and girlfriend will react.  

I knew that Shane was a trans boy before beginning the book but I wish I hadn't had that knowledge.  One of the things I liked the best about this is that Hennessey just drops you into Shane's typical middle school boy life - sports, friend, graphic novels, beginnings of romance with a cute girl, bullying - without a word about his biological sex.  When I book talk this to my students, I totally want to find a hook other than his gender because I want my kids to be sucked into Shane's life as a completely "normal" boy before they can bring all their assumptions to bear.  There are a lot of things I like about this book including:
1.  His dad is not all okay with everything right away.  I've said this about several other books with transgendered or gay characters - your loved ones don't always just get it right away.  And even if they're supportive in general, they're gonna make some mistakes and say some stupid things.  It's okay that his dad is struggling to get there as long as he is still working on it.
2.  Because no one at school knows about his past, Shane has kinda convinced himself that he's fine and doesn't need a support group.  But it turns out he's not as all together as he thinks, especially after he is outed at school.  Coming out is a lifetime process as is self-acceptance.
3.  Some people he knows are okay with his revelation and some are not.  Always gonna be that way.  And just like his dad, some of them are supportive but don't really know exactly what to say or how to be supportive without also being awkward.  
4.  There is a little bit of romance - which is typical for a 12 year old boy - but the focus of the book is on Shane's identity in general, not his sexuality.  Sex and orientation are not the same thing but not a lot of people get that.  The other great thing about this point is that when parents come after this book, and some of them will, they won't be able to say that it is inappropriate because middle schoolers don't need to be reading about sex.  The only grounds for objecting to this book is your own personal bigotry and you're basically going to have to expose that in your book challenge.  They'll come up with some other reasons, but that's what's really going to be the reason.
5.  It's really just a story about a boy being bullied for being who he is and him figuring out how to stand up for himself and ignore the bullies.  And it shows that process in a very realistic way with Shane feeling like there's no hope at all to begin with.  It's a good message for my teens to see that you can make it out of the depths of despair back to normal life.  

Prince in Disguise by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Dylan has a lot to live up to when compared to her big sister Dusty.  Dusty is a former Miss Mississippi, is now engaged to a Scottish lord, AND is the star of reality show Prince in Disguise which is tracing her relationship with her fiance Ronan.  Although she is constantly compared to her big sister, Dylan has no taste for fame so she is not happy when she finds out she will be part of the show as it travels to Scotland to prepare for the big wedding.  Almost immediately she meets charming, geeky Jamie and the two become fast friends, and more, which is just what Dylan needs to help her cope with all the reality show twists the producers have in store for her family.

Prince in Disguise is full of unexpected twists, deep secrets and gasp out loud moments... NAH, that's not true at all!  This book is about as formulaic as any Hallmark channel movie but if you were expecting something else, you need to do some more reading and watching so you can spot the "twists" a little sooner.  Instead, this book is warm and comforting because you do know what's going to happen and what the surprise will be.  But what makes it more fun than some others of its kind is that ALL the characters are charming, which matters a lot to me.  Dylan and Jamie's romance is fun and moves at a realistic pace for two teens.  Although Ronan's mom is a snob who doesn't care for Dylan's family, the two sisters and their mom are a pretty tight unit and Strohm does a great job not putting Mom into the trashy in-law faux pas-ing with the royals stereotype.  In fact, Dylan's mom is a great standard of class which really was a twist on the usual formula.  No surprises galore, but satisfying romances and family bonding abound.